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After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

WEST PALM BEACH , Fla. — Nationals manager Dusty Baker discerns a difference in Bryce Harper at the plate this spring compared with the guy who struggled mightily for much of last season.

It's not his current home run binge -- that's simply a byproduct of Harper's success, and a pleasant one at that.

"He's not missing pitches," Baker said. "The last couple days, he's not missing pitches and he's not fouling balls off. When you're not doing well, a lot of times you're fouling balls off that you should putting play, whether it's a line-drive home run or a popup or something."

Harper had homered in three straight games for Washington before going 0 for 1 against Detroit on Monday. Five of his eight spring hits have been homers and he's added a double for good measure.

Harper also drew a four-pitch walk from Tigers ace Justin Verlander in a 3-3, 10-inning tie. The four-time All-Star outfielder is hitting .313 in exhibition play and began the day tied with San Diego's Jabari Blash for the spring training lead in home runs.

"He looks good. He looks real good," Baker said.

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Harper only hit two homers last spring after winning the 2015 NL MVP award. Once he left Florida, though, Harper turned it on, swatting nine homers by the end of April while hitting .286.

"Without Bryce last year, there's no way we'd have gotten off to the start that we had last year," Baker said.

That surge didn't last. Harper never hit more than four homers in any given month the remainder of the way and only mashed five after the All-Star break. His .226 average in the second half dropped Harper's season average to .243, easily the lowest of his five-year major league career. He finished with 24 homers and 86 RBIs for the NL East champions.

The previous season, Harper hit .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBIs.

Harper's futility fueled speculation that he was playing through an injury, but he maintained publicly that there was nothing physically wrong with him.

"To me, he was (swinging) underneath and missing a lot of balls, fouling them off," Baker said.

Teammates are hoping that Harper's spring foreshadows a resurgence at the plate.

"As far as health-wise, the way his body looks -- and I think that's the most important thing -- he looks great," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

A strong spring often indicates the return of much-needed confidence for a player coming off a down year.

That might not be the case for Harper.

"Confidence ain't his problem," Baker said. "Confidence might be some other guys' problems, but I think he was probably born confident."

MORE NATS: Washington signs John Lannan to minor league deal

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Nationals six-game winning streak comes to an end in Los Angeles

Nationals six-game winning streak comes to an end in Los Angeles

The book on Alex Meyer was pretty clear: big stuff, bigger control problems.

Not so much Wednesday night for the 6-foot-9 right-hander.

Meyer executed nearly to perfection while allowing a hit and a walk over seven innings and leading the Los Angeles Angels to a 7-0 victory that ended the Washington Nationals' six-game winning streak.

MORE NATS: NATS BOLSTER BULLPEN

"We really didn't have much of a chance," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Our reports were he didn't have very good command, but he did tonight."

Meyer (4-5) had a perfect game until he walked Anthony Rendon with two outs in the fifth. He lost his no-hitter with two outs in the sixth when Brian Goodwin doubled down the right-field line.

Meyer, Rendon and Goodwin were all first-round draft picks by the Nationals in 2011.

"I went to breakfast with (Goodwin) this morning and paid for it," Meyer said. "I'll have to talk to him about that."

Meyer had been plagued by walks this season (41 in 60 1/3 innings) but had just the one free pass in a career-high seven innings. He struck out seven.

David Hernandez and Jose Alvarez each threw a scoreless, hitless inning to complete the one-hitter. It was only the second time this season the Nationals have been shut out.

"To make outs the way he did says a lot about his upside and potential," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Mike Trout and C.J. Cron each hit two-run homers to support Meyer. For Trout, it was his 18th of the season.

Gio Gonzalez (8-5) started for the Nationals but gave up a pair of first-inning runs on Albert Pujols' single and Andrelton Simmons' sacrifice fly, and it was all the runs Los Angeles would need.

Washington outfielder Bryce Harper did not play in the nationally televised game. It was a scheduled day off.

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Zimmerman sets franchise HR record, Nationals beat Reds 6-1

Zimmerman sets franchise HR record, Nationals beat Reds 6-1

The NL East leaders opened the second half of the season with a franchise record, a series sweep and a significant upgrade -- exactly how the Nationals wanted to keep their momentum going.

Ryan Zimmerman set the Nationals' career home run record with a solo shot, and Bryce Harper connected again on Monday as Washington powered its way to a 6-1 victory for a four-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds.

Zimmerman's 235th career homer moved him ahead of Vladimir Guerrero for most in Expos and Nationals history. Guerrero quickly tweeted congratulations , saying he doesn't mind being second.

"It's special to be in one place your entire career," said Zimmerman, in his 12th season with the team that made him a first-round draft pick. "You can't do stuff like this if you're not in the same place for a long time. So I feel very lucky to have spent my entire career here, honored to have hit more home runs than any Expo or National. It's cool."

The Nationals emerged from the All-Star break with an emphatically successful series -- 13 homers, including three by Harper, and 35 runs overall by the league's top offense. It was the Nationals' first four-game sweep of the Reds and left them 6-1 against Cincinnati this season.

Washington improved to a season-high 20 games over .500 (56-36) with its ninth victory in 11 games.

The Nationals' roster got a little better during the series, too. Washington shored up its weak bullpen by getting relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from Oakland on Sunday. They'll join the team in Los Angeles for the start of a series against the Angels on Tuesday.

"We know we have a good team and we've put ourselves in a good spot to start the second half, but we've got a ways to go," Zimmerman said. "Obviously we acquired two talented guys for the bullpen, and we'll just try to keep scoring runs so that they can come in and lock the games up."

Stephen Strasburg (10-3) recovered from his shortest start of the season by fanning 11 in seven innings and allowing four hits, including Eugenio Suarez's homer. Strasburg left his last start -- a 13-0 loss to Atlanta on July 8 -- after Nick Markakis' liner deflected off his hip in the third inning.

He allowed only two hits -- including an infield single -- in his last five innings.

"Your body wants to pretend it's the offseason," Strasburg said of the break between starts. "It took a little while to get going."

Scott Feldman (7-7) lasted only one inning, limited by a stiff right knee that has been bothering him. He gave up a double, a single, Harper's three-run homer and Zimmerman's solo shot in his first 12 pitches. Feldman left after facing nine batters and giving up five runs on 33 pitches.

"It wouldn't loosen up," Feldman said of the knee. "It was one of those days. I put the team in a tough spot. We were down five runs right off the bat."

Harper's homer extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Brian Goodwin's solo shot made it 6-1 in the sixth.

4 FOR 4

The last time the Nationals swept a four-game series was last season against Atlanta. It was the 11th four-game sweep in Nationals history.

KEEP RUNNING

Daniel Murphy scored from second base on Matt Wieter's fly out in the first inning, turning it into a sacrifice fly. Right fielder Scooter Gennett made a diving catch in the gap and then stumbled and dropped the ball while trying to get up, giving Murphy enough time to make it home.

STATS

It was Strasburg's sixth double-digit strikeout game of the season and the 35th of his career. ... Anthony Rendon extended his hitting streak to 11 games. ... Nationals starters allowed only one run in the series. ... The 13 homers allowed in a series matched the Reds' club record.

NATIONALS MOVES

Washington called up right-hander Jacob Turner from Triple-A. Right-hander Koda Glover -- sidelined since April by a hip injury -- was moved to the 60-day DL.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: CF Michael Taylor hasn't yet started baseball-related activities as he recovers from a strained right oblique. He went on the DL on July 7.

Reds: C Devin Mesoraco began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Louisville. He'll play a few games and be re-evaluated. He's been sidelined since July 5 with a strained left shoulder.

UP NEXT

Nationals: They face the Angels for the first time since 2011. Washington is 6-7 in interleague play this season.

Reds: RHP Sal Romano (1-1) will be called up to make his third career start when the Reds face the Diamondbacks. He also started on April 16 against Milwaukee and July 6 at Colorado.